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How to apply the Pareto principle at work

by: Shiv Sharma
How to apply the Pareto principle at work

At the cusp of the 20th century, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto was walking in his garden. He grew peas there. While looking at the harvest, it hit him that 80% of all his peas came from 20% of the garden’s pea plants. 

Sometime later, while studying the relationship between population and economy in Italy, he found out that approximately 80% of the nation’s total wealth rested in the hands of 20% of its population. An observation that stood its ground even when he studied other European countries. 

Thus, the Pareto principle, famously known as the 80/20 rule was born. Originally intended as an economic theory explaining income inequality, it has now been associated with countless other disciplines.

And of course, productivity pundits declared that 20% of tasks are responsible for 80% of results. 

So if the Pareto principle is truly the golden ratio of productivity, how can we apply them at work? Here are 6 ways to do it:

Prioritize your to-dos based on impact, not effort

We tend to plan our workload based on how much effort is required, hence the term “workload”. There are plenty of interesting (sometimes conflicting) productivity tips about this, ranging from “Do the hardest task, first thing in the morning.” to “If a task takes less than 2 minutes, do it right away.

To apply the Pareto principle, we should prioritize to-dos based on their impact. Why invest your limited time in tasks that drain you but don’t provide befitting results. It’s easier said than done though. It’s tough for anyone to understand by themselves which of their tasks will give maximum results.

That’s why it’s important to ask for help. Talk to your teammates and manager. Ask them, in the last quarter which three things that you did helped them the most. I certainly was surprised by their answers when I realized that the tasks that took me the longest didn’t feature on the list. It also helps to ask them out of your current priorities what would help them the most in the near future.

Prioritize your stakeholders

Another aspect of prioritization based on impact is prioritizing your stakeholders. This is especially true for client-facing roles such as sales, support and customer success. It’s also true for roles that involve multiple stakeholders within the organization such as product, HR, operations, etc. 

Mendelow’s model of stakeholder prioritization is pretty helpful in this regard.

Image source – ‘Environmental Scanning – The Impact of the Stakeholder Concept,’ ICIS 1981 Proceedings, 20.

Mendelow divided stakeholders into 4 categories. Let’s take a look at them using an example of a sales rep.

  • High interest/high power – For a sales rep, this would usually be their immediate manager who has high influence over their career. It would also include big potential clients that are extremely interested in sealing the deal. Their requirements should be prioritized and managed closely.
  • Low interest/high power – This might include prospects that can potentially turn into big customers. However, they are still not fully convinced. They should be kept satisfied, but pushing them aggressively might put them off. 
  • High interest/low power – A great example of this would be friends at work from another department. They don’t have too much influence over one’s performance but have a high interest in their friend’s success. 
  • Low interest/low power – Colleagues in other teams that don’t directly affect your work. They might have occasional requirements. Tasks from them shouldn’t be prioritized over the first three categories. 

As you can imagine, the requirements from the first group (High interest/high power) might only account for 20% of your to-dos but would affect 80% of your overall performance. 

Don’t ignore non-crucial tasks 

If 20% of tasks account for 80% of results, why don’t we simply ignore the rest and solely focus on critical work?

This is the biggest mistake people make while applying the Pareto principle. As much as it’s important to prioritize important tasks, it’s equally important to plan for tasks with low impact but still need to get done. 

For example, for an HR manager, high impact tasks would be talking to employees, solving conflicts, creating performance plans. However, they might also need to take care of some administrative work that’s part of the bureaucracy. 

There are two major ways to deal with the remaining 80% of noncrucial tasks:

  • Delegation – If possible, delegate such tasks. Even if delegation creates extra work in the beginning because you have to coach your teammates, it will help in the long run. Delegation ensures you have more room for work that has a higher strategic impact. It also helps you with succession planning. 
  • Utilizing interstices – A typical workday is full of interstices – little time slots between big chunks of heavy-duty work. These typically include 30 min intervals between meetings, smoke breaks, the occasional food coma after lunch. Usually, it’s hard to do deep work during these periods so we often end up procrastinating. However, interstices are great for doing routine (yet necessary) tasks that don’t require much mental energy, such as checking emails, setting up meetings, replying to messages. The famous author Umberto Eco was famous for using such interstices to get a lot of work done. 

It’s important to rest 

So, you’ve now dedicated the most productive hours for critical tasks and interstices for noncrucial work. But, there’s still one major thing left – rest.

In order to focus on top priorities, it’s important to ensure that you have enough opportunities to relax and unwind. An exhausted mind can not prioritize correctly. Take some time off and treat it as a vital aspect of being more productive. Countless researchers have shown that even small breaks considerably reduce the risk of stress and burnout. 

Embrace technology 

You might have noticed that at the heart of the Pareto principle is prioritization. And technology can really help you prioritize much more efficiently. Depending on your preference you can choose across a wide variety of tools, ranging from simple to-do lists to sophisticated collaboration tools. An online task/project management tool like Taskworld lets your entire team prioritize to-dos. The transparent and collaborative nature of such tools helps teams ensure they’re working on the tasks that have the highest urgency.

Don’t take 80/20 literally

An important thing to keep in mind about the Pareto principle is to not take the 80/20 literally. Its gist is important, not the fine details. It might as well be called 70/30, 90/10 rule.  In fact, Pareto would have been devastated to see the income inequality get even worse today. But the fact remains that a few of the tasks eventually affect the majority of the results.

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